Although practices differed between countries and across generations, by the 12th century the fear of a pagan environment was no longer relevant for Western Jews. Their aversion to artistic work had long since diminished. Although rulings were not uniform, in general it was agreed that art was not an infraction of Rabbinic law whose veto only extended to complete representation of humans in the round and of God. So sculpture was the one art form that was never created by Jews.
filigreed Sabbath prayerbook cover
Because Judaism was a way of life that sanctified everyday practices and routines, everyday articles were valid objects for craftsmen. Just as there was no area of ordinary existence that was untouched by Judaism, so there was almost no category of object that could not be decorated. For this reason Judaica was not limited to Fine Art. Indeed it is a truism that some objects were almost entirely utilitarian in purpose and were not manufactured to particularly please the eye. Even when Jewish art did achieve a level of great beauty, it still deviated from naturalism, towards a more ornamental approach.
When there was no ritual purpose, the artist and the art could be very flexible. So we cannot tell, for example, whether individual burial society tankards or double wedding cups were Christian or Jewish. We can tell, however, that they were pieces of art of their time and place. Religious art might have served an eternal God, but it was subject to the same fads and fashions as were all other products.
Jewish ritual always had some purposes that it shared with Christianity, and others that Christianity did not adopt when in broke away from its mother religion. One shared value was that people of both religions were lifted above the mundane and the secular when they performed acts of piety. These acts became an expression of the relationship between the individual, or the community, and God.
People of both religions were also reminded of the historical component of their faith when they perform ancient observances. There was a powerful sense of continuity and permanence in rituals that derived from the fore fathers in ancient Israel.
Finally ritual enabled people in both religions to find an appropriate format for mobilising their emotions and thoughts on the occasion of major events in their lives such as a birth, marriage or death.
19th century, Polish
The didactic function of art was rarely important in Judaism because the near universal literacy amongst Jewish males, at least, made it unnecessary. Compare this to Christian medieval art when teaching the illiterate was the main purpose of stained glass windows, sculpture and precious metal work. Nonetheless art was valued; it made the achievement of the 613 commandments more pleasing and merit-worthy if they were fulfilled in a beautiful way.
But because the life of medieval Jews was precarious, only art work that could be packed up at a moment's notice would be commissioned. Fixed or heavy structures were out of the question; stained glass and frescoes were very very rare. Three dimensional sculpture was in any case banned.
filigreed mezuzah case,
Filigree is a delicate and lace-like decorative style, made with twisted threads usually of gold and silver, or stitching of the same curving motifs. Filigreework was not a Jewish invention - see for example the use of gold and silver filigree in Greek, Etruscan and Indian art. But after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish silver smiths settled in North Africa and introduced filigree and cloisonné techniques to the craftsmen there. Filigree work became most popular amongst Jewish Yemenites.
Filigree work also became a very popular decorative technique in the south German silver centres in the 17th century. Beautiful examples of antique filigreed rosaries from Bavarian Christian silversmiths abounded. Soon Jewish silversmiths started using filigree on spice containers for Sabbath, Esther scrolls for Purim or any other Jewish object that they fancied. Even illuminated Jewish manuscripts could be decorated with wide borders ornamented with lush foliate forms, framing their opening pages. Initial words were often written, in gold, within very large panels embellished with filigree work.
Giorgio Busetto and Pascal Jonnaert showed a Russian spice tower from the 19th century, made by a Jewish artist. The base was designed in the form of a three dimensional David's shield made with an impressive work of filigree. Above the base was a hidden cup with 6 large stones on its base and 5 small jade stones in the patterns of filigree flowers. The tower's base was retractable so that the cup could be used for the service to farewell the Sabbath.
A menorah/candelabra’s silver was often decorated with filigree motifs. The scrolls might contain a double-headed eagle or an arched double doorway that opened as an ark would open; to show a Torah scroll inside. Other motifs included open flowers, pillars, crowns and birds. The front was always set with eight oil-containers perhaps in the form of miniature containers, and there was also a servant light with scrolling filigree stem supporting a candleholder.
Cote de Texas blog has the most beautiful filigreed cover for a Sabbath day prayer book. It looked so ornamental and so delicate that we can assume it was made for a woman to carry. I only wish I knew which country it came from and when it was made.
filigreed spice tower and cup,
19th century, Russian
Typically a mezuzah case held the prayer parchment that was attached to the doorpost of Jewish homes. The parchment itself held the holiness of the object but the beauty of the holder could magnify the glamour of the object. In the Israeli mezuzah case (see photo), the filigreed silver was further decorated with semi precious stones.
When the Silver Department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design was established in Jerusalem in 1908, teachers from Yemen, Germany and Poland came to teach filigree silver art to the students.